Nervous and excited are emotions that I often get confused. I would worry if I didn’t feel that nervous yet excited buzz upon arriving at a new airport, any airport. I arrive in Tokyo with both these emotions running neck and neck. My initial dream or half baked plan for an adventure is about to be realised. Hours spent at home hovering over a map trying to make sense of the topography and distance between towns. It’s important when the physical effort is all your own spinning the bike peddles or stepping along the trail. There’s been more planning put into this tour than most as some areas have minimal accomodation and I’m beyond carrying all the gear necessary to camp and cook. So best I get it right.
The flight to Tokyo was seamless although Qantas is a few hours late. Instead of arriving at 9pm it’s closer to 11pm and bang on midnight by the time I have dragged my bike bag through the steamy and now deserted streets of Ginza to my hotel. It’s too good a hotel for the few hours I’ll enjoy in it before heading to the mountains.
Early morning train to Nikko two hours North of Tokyo on a semi express with much bowing, punctual timetables and courtesy. I watch a trial of a new train for this route, the spacia X, it’s like a lattice wrapped serpent. Sadly today I am on the soon to replaced model which still looks as pristine as the day it began operating. By days end I have reached my hotel in the forest three kms above Nikko, assembled the bike and ridden around the nearby Daiya river.
I’d earmarked a ride to the old Italian embassy on the shore of Lake Chuzenji. It was a chance to truly test the new gearing on my bike without the added weight of my touring bags. The road to the lake is called Irohazaka Winding Road. A series of hairpin bends clinging precariously to the side of a steep mountain pass, each given a letter of the ancient Japanese language. I saw them all through misty, sweaty eyes, the road is steep. The road is so tight that a few years back they made it one way and send you back up an alternative loop of bitumen spaghetti to Nikko. I survived reaching the lake by celebrating with scones and English tea in the old British embassy next to the empty Italian embassy. The cool alpine air wafting off the lake was where all the diplomats headed once the Tokyo summer became unbearable one hundred years ago.
My bike is fully loaded the next morning when I do it all again but this time a little slower. Today I continued further North past Lake Chuzenji and then Lake Yunoko which gives off a head rearing, pungent sulphur odour. The climbing continued till I entered a tunnel which I had dreaded but it took me to the other side… literally. It was suddenly all downhill past empty ski fields and thick forest. It was late, the climbing had been never ending. I turned a corner and spotted a shaggy white animal I now know to be a Japanese serow or Kamoshika which is part deer, part goat. It then spotted me and clattered across the road leaping a metre high fence with ease.
I continue to hurtle down through the valley sure my day would soon be over but my ‘perceived booking’ turned into a ‘no booking’ and a no vacancy… Oh dear, on to another, then another, then finally no phone battery, then a helpful receptionist. At 106 kms I had a bed, a shower and just around the corner a small bar with impeccable beer and a bowl of quickly rustled up pasta. “Arigato, arigato” “thank you, thank you” I spluttered after every beer. I was spent.
Leaving yourself to be guided by a navigation app like Kamoot can and has got me into trouble many times BUT has also shown me things I would never find without years of research. Today it excelled. When farmers start to look up like “what’s he doing here” I know I’m off the beaten track. Sure enough in trying to reach Gunma Insect World I had been taken cross country and in through a rarely used rear tradesman’s entrance to their vast conservation area. So I was a surprise for the attendant on level 3 in my cycling gear and frightened she immediately called the manager. At first they wanted me to backtrack out and follow all the normal roads to the car park. I pushed back I could see the entrance from where we spoke. Finally the manager agreed to accompany me and the bike around the complex to a spot to lock my bike. He showed me how to buy my ticket then hung around to show me the best parts of the exhibit. See, I would never have got a personal tour otherwise. The standout was the butterfly enclosure within the sweeping curves of the beautiful steel and glass structure.
After a week my partner, Kylie flew to Tokyo then caught a train to the small rural town of Kiryu to enjoy a night and stay in a traditional inn. First I dragged her into my adopted local bar where over the past few nights the young couple serving had cared for me with icy glasses of beer and delicious plates of seared beef, chicken nuggets and soft tofu. It was Saturday night and rowdy, the place was crammed with girls out enjoying a birthday and some early drinks before kicking on. We stayed just long enough to enjoy it then ducked around the corner back to Oriya guest house.
There was an old school Japanese magician performing at Oriya. Perfect because Magic needs no language. The magician was slick and so was his hair stuck hard to his head like a performer from the 1930s. His finale was to pull a cloth from between towering champagne glasses which left us all inhaling. Later the host, Gabriel mentioned he had performed there once before and the whole pyramid of glasses had tumbled breaking everywhere. It was kind of Gabriel to show faith and rebook him. The twenty guests stayed on after the show and everyone managed to use a few words of English and international mime. This is travel I thought.
Then it’s back to Nikko and the forecast is for rain… all day. I pack and head out early, it’s a quiet Sunday morning and my day will be a steady climb the whole way. Kylie will catch a single carriage train and then a bus to meet me at Nikko.
I continue to fear not finding anywhere for food. Will the shops be closed on a Sunday ? Of course not and besides Japan is king of convenience stores with …21,000 7/11 stores, 15,500 Family Mart and 14,000 Lawsons. Of course there is one on the outskirts of Kiryu and I load up. Imagine 50,000 stores selling sandwiches and not one crust to be seen. No wonder the Japanese all have straight hair.
The rain is light and steady, barely noticeable. I pass thick forests of cedar giving off a freshness you can’t bottle and rivers noisily gushing from this endless rain. It’s about getting into the groove and today my legs are feeling light not blocks of lead struggling to turn.
The summit is shrouded in fog and I don’t realise I’ve arrived. I enter the yawning mouth of a tunnel nearly three kms long, suddenly I’m not peddling but shooting along downhill in semi darkness with the echoing sound of cars somewhere in this concrete tube. My face is half smile, half fear as I try to hold a line close to the kerb to give the vehicles enough space to pass. Finally I’m out, and unbeknown Kylie’s bus passes me. The drizzle on the other side is now a heavy downpour and I put my head down for the final ten kms back to the pension up in the forest above Nikko.
It’s my final morning in Nikko and I want to have one last short ride before dismantling the bike to take it back to Tokyo. I download a suggested route from the cycling app Strava, 22 kms with more climbing than I want but nothings flat around here.
I head out telling the hosts I will return before checkout, our bags sitting on the porch ready to go. Kylie walks down to the temples to photograph them without rain. I wiz down the hill and turn South along the river I’ve ridden before. After some time I recross the river and start to climb back towards the pension. Strava has me on unfamiliar territory and the main roads have disappeared but the GPS clearly shows me on track. I’m stubborn, too stubborn, I should have turned back but no, I pressed on as steady rain began to tumble.
The track disappeared completely. The undergrowth got thicker, long time dead trees lay across where the path should be. After an hour I hear pounding water, the Kirifuri falls. I headed towards them knowing it wasn’t far from my pension. I scrambled to the bottom of the raging falls using my bike as a brake on the steep slopes. Wrong… when I arrived at the bottom there was neither a way across the river nor anywhere to get back up. I was snookered.
It took me two hours to get around 200 meters back up the way I’d come towards a ridge. I was holding onto any tree I thought would hold me whilst dragging my bike behind. It was another two hours of crashing through the undergrowth to get back to civilisation. In amongst all this I was scratched, bitten by huge insects and over fifty leeches decided to attach themselves to my arms, legs and feet. I pulled off the leeches I could reach but could still feel them in my boots.
So I arrive at the pension, five hours later than checkout, a real mess. Four bemused police stood at the door. I stood dripping wet in a bloody pool of water looking desperate, tired and relieved. Soon they are asking me questions and I try to explain the path I took was not for bicycles. Next they photograph my face then my hands. is this the new procedure ? I don’t know anything beyond finger printing. Don’t ask any questions Jeff… eventually having photographed my passport and feeling sorry for me and anyone with me, they departed.
I stripped off, found my bike shoes were a bloody mess of squirming leeches and and headed downstairs to the onsen shower. It looked like a blood bath afterwards as the leech wounds just wouldn’t stop bleeding. The host, Satoshi eventually ran me down to the station with his wife wanting to spray everything entering their car with bleach. “You’ll laugh about this tomorrow” he said not turning but looking straight at the windscreen. “No, it’ll take a few days” I replied as I got out of the car and saw Kylie’s face. It was a quiet trip back to Tokyo where the bike was thankfully placed in storage.
It’s about walking for the next two weeks. First the Nakasendo trail then Kyoto and finally the Kimano Koda trail from Koyasan. The Nakasendo trail is world famous and every second walker is an international visitor. Most seem to be doing small sections then getting a taxi or bus back to civilisation. We lug two medium size backpacks with a week’s worth of clothes, toiletries and an iPad. It’s possible to have your luggage moved about fairly economically with Blackcat, a famous Japanese courier company. Kylie has her wheelie bag moved to accommodation a week away giving her a wardrobe change and it’s a small price to pay for some travel peace.
The traditional inns at the post towns along the path are the icing on the cake. You arrive to a warm Japanese smile weary from your days walk. After a good scrub and a steaming hot drench in the onsen you dress in your Yamato gown and one size fits all slippers. Then it’s down the treacherous stairs in your ill-fitting slippers to squat at a low lacquer table for your Japanese dinner. I sit there most nights my body still steaming hot, glowing an unnatural pink. Mostly you’ll find me with my hand in the air trying to get the waiters attention for more Asahi beer then back to eating plate after plate of tiny delicacies.
Finally it’s back upstairs to crawl across the tatami floor matting onto the futon for what you hope is a night of comfortable sleep. I’m unconvinced that sleeping on the floor is good for you. But my real fear is negotiating the stairs for a pee in the middle of the night. I can see it… a broken, twisted body found early morning by staff with a slipper around my ear in a pool of pee at the bottom of the stairs. So far I’m delighted to report that I mostly wake up at these inns refreshed and in one piece. But it does mean I go to bed with a clear map in my head of how to negotiate the rickety stairs in the dead of night.
There have been less Nakasendo trail walkers than I’d expected. Most days it’s been unusual to see more than a handful. The scenery is alpine fresh with the strong scent of cedar trees and always the nearby gurgle of water finding its way to the bottom of the surrounding mountains. Often sections of the path have been washed away as the rain comes heavy and fast and the steepness means the water tears a new path to the river down in the valley. It’s a real battle of man vs nature as repairs and intricate engineering solutions are found to stabilise and fight the natural erosion. It must also be very extremely expensive for Japan to maintain this ongoing battle.
The walking of the Nakasendo trail has taken its toll on my body. When I had been dragging my bike through the forest in Nikko slipping and sliding about I had injured my achilles heel. Over the last ten days of constant trail walking it has become very sore and my ankle is badly swollen. A decision had to be made, I was getting slower and slower. “Put him down” I hear you say. The walk of the Kimano Kodo trail from Koyasan will have to wait till another time. It’ll be less strenuous walks for the reminder of the trip.
Onto Koyasan a Buddhist retreat set high in the mountains South of Osaka. It is tricky to reach with a train that snakes through heavily wooded forest, jerking and squeaking as it navigates the single track towards Gokurakubashi. It is also beyond the JR pass so you have to buy a ticket requesting the destination. Go on, try repeating the station name and stop spitting on your screen. After Gokurakubashi it’s a rope pulled train for the last ten minutes up the steepest bit.
By now you are tired but it’s not over. You cannot walk from the station, you must catch a bus. Thankfully there was a guy with a list of the Buddhist temple inns and their closest bus stop. I bowed to him, he bowed back. We arrived at the inn just in time for dinner at 5.30pm. Crosslegged and staring at a meal of no joy to carnivores I chowed down hoping to finish before my crossed legs seized up or fell asleep. We pretended to head out to view the historic Daimon gate but really it was to get some nourishment in the shape of an ice cream from the Family Mart around the corner.
Gongs began echoing at 6am the next morning. I’d misread the booking sheet because you are expected to be fully alert and ready to chant at 6.20am. The ceremony included long winded chanting that was sufficiently melodious to let you drift back to sleep until the cymbals were struck or a tenor deep bell was clunked. Finally we all took turns to throw a pinch of cedar chips into the smouldering pot three times and bow to Buddha hidden further back in the temple. All of this before breakfast. I just wanted to go back to bed.
Instead of a few days walking we took a room in the town of Kurashiki. No particular reason other than it appeared small enough to navigate and was just far enough off the crossroads of the Japanese rail system to have some calm. The hotel was in an old cotton factory. Unbeknown to me the region is famous for cotton and is now world famous for denim jeans. There are towns with the streets painted indigo blue and little tailor shops that will custom make on the spot. Kurashiki old town around the hotel is a network of canals with all the traditional buildings basically intact. During the day it was a sticky humid tourist trap but at 5pm they buggered off and a peacefulness settled over the place once the sun disappeared.
A final night in Kyoto where we were originally to regroup after the walk. Instead Kylie has organised a book binding course under the guidance of master craftsman, Tom and his daughter, Yoko. We are four novices all intent on producing our very own hand stitched book. Tom has spent a mere sixty five years producing books with select paper, needle and special threads, a tray of milky glue and a broad wooden paint brush.
But first you must choose your cover design from the array of Kyoto kimono patterns. Then stitch eight pages at a time into “chapters” then attach another eight to them until we have a small book of sixty four pages. An ancient guillotine in the corner cleans our book into crisp uniform pages with a distinctive, no nonsense clunk. There is gluing, attempted precise placement and occasional frustration at our attempts after watching Tom who could do this in his sleep. Whenever you watch a craftsman it always appears so easy. Then you try to replicate, fumbling and dabbing without his world weary confidence. Eventually we all have worthy, no, impressive hand produced books.
For a final flourish Tom takes us to his embossing press. “Spin and hold” he splutters as he points at the wheel. We all have various levels of success but the gold leaf Kyoto calligraphy is impressive if not perfect. Then it’s a round of applause for Tom and his daughter. Yoko walks us to the bus stop like a mother ensuring her children catch the school bus back into the hustle of downtown Kyoto. What a joy it’s been to watch her work alongside her aging father.
Eating highlights because Japan for me is very much food.
I thought I’d eaten the tastiest, cleanest meal in my life as I cycled from Lake Chuzenji. I stopped and ate a lake trout, quickly grilled with blistering skin and served with a simple bowl of rice. Well that was until I tasted an even smaller trout which was again grilled, sprinkled with salt and a squeeze of lemon. “Hold the head and tail” the excited Italian/Japanese host, Franco dared me “then bite hard through the skin.” It melted away with the taste of salty charred skin and delicate flesh filling my mouth. “Oishi….” I mumbled.
Twenty years ago I had eaten horse at a banquet dinner in Japan with Robyn. It hadn’t been explained or maybe it was lost in translation, whatever, it was after we had finished eating it that Robyn was seen trying to regurgitate the tail. But this time it was clearly spelt out, I had a conscience decision to make. “Yes, I’ll try some” I found myself telling the host. Soon a small dish of shredded daikon arrived and on top were fine slices of raw red meat and a dipping sauce. A deep breathe and my chopsticks coiled the meat, dipping it into the sauce. It was delicious, no question but still something inside me thought too Iong about the beautiful beast that is a horse. I finished the dish but probably won’t order another slow racehorse again.
Just when I was starting to dream of a simple dish that wasn’t Japanese, root vegetables or udon noodles along came Shabu shabu. It was at another banquet meal and instead of a coiled, frozen in time grilled fish there was a big pot holding centre stage on the table. The host lifted the lid to a bubbling watery stock of vegetables. “Please, slowly drop your ingredients into the stock and then wipe in the ponzu dipping sauce.” Wow, the meat, mushrooms, tofu and cabbage barely cooked through were given gourmet status with the help of this tasty sauce. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to eat the mountain of ingredients in front of me but thanks to the tang and the help of one or two local beer it progressively disappeared.
A late charge for most interesting meal was hay smoked chicken. First the chicken is given its normal grille then the chicken is taken to a seperate cubicle containing a small fire. Two handfuls of dry hay are thrown onto the fire and as it flares up the chicken is waived through the flames giving the chicken a deep smokey flavour. The theatre of watching your food being wafted through the burst of flame is impressive and super tasty.
And the winner in the category of best overall dining experience has to go to a dinky okonomiyaki joint spitting distance from hotel Anteroom in Kyoto. True, every savoury pancake dish was mouthwatering and comfort food but it was the theatre of the chef, spatulas deftly chopping and sliding whilst his wife pulled beers and laughed with the dozen customers. In broken English the chef made everyone welcome and relaxed.
His precision, and obvious experience right before your eyes made it a treat as your mouth began salivating at the next serving. Where else but Japan would you have the hosts walk into the street and bow as you shuffled into the night. Turnaround… they are still there, still of service. Only Japan.
Forth visit and I still think there is more to experience here.